Cameras and the Boston bombers

 

tomkeane@tomkeane.com

It was cameras on the street that led to the rapid identification of the Brothers Tsarnaev and it was cameras on the street that likely stopped them from killing even more. The effective use of surveillance in the Marathon bombings seems to make a compelling case for installing even more cameras.

Except that next time around, the terrorists might wear wigs, mustaches, and thick-framed glasses.

Or perhaps they’ll do their deeds in the dark.

Surveillance cameras seem like such a simple solution to crime and terrorism. Technology has advanced so that cost and data-storage issues are no longer a big deal. The cameras are easy to use and deliver clear, high-quality images. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicts that soon “there’ll be cameras everyplace.” Boston has quite a few already, including hundreds on subways and buses. So too do many other major American cities. The United Kingdom is held out as the most advanced example of their use, with at least 1.85 million surveillance cameras in place: one camera for every 34 citizens.

Yet there is scant evidence they do much to improve public safety.

The UK experience has been much studied and the overall conclusion (from 2002 and 2005 analyses of dozens of studies) is that the ubiquitous cameras have little impact on crime rates. There are many reasons why. Much crime is impulsive; people often aren’t thinking about cameras when they steal, hit, stab, or shoot. Then again, if potential criminals are aware that cameras are around, they’ll look for other times and places, or just figure out how to avoid being recognized.

All that notwithstanding, at times the cameras can help immensely — as the quick capture of the alleged Marathon bombers proved. Demands for more such cameras will be hard to resist. And in any event, public surveillance is expanding no matter what local officials do. Private businesses increasingly use cameras; the front desks of many apartment buildings, for instance, are constantly monitoring their grounds and even elevators. Then too, almost all of us have smartphones able to take stills and video at a moment’s notice.

In other words, cameras are inevitable. The real issue isn’t resisting their presence, but rather figuring out the rules for their use. How do we preserve privacy while still letting law enforcement do its job?

Two thoughts. First, even if the images are taken by government agencies, do not make them accessible to the public. Beginning in the 1960s, governments at all levels adopted various freedom of information rules that were intended to make the inner workings of politics and the bureaucracy visible to all.

The goal was worthy, but too often those rules have been perverted so that information the government collects about us is now public as well.

Every 911 call, for instance, is a public document. So too are the names of holders of some gun permits (something that prompted shock when a New York newspaper then took that data and published maps for all to see) and, for that matter, households that have security systems installed, meaning those without security systems are known as well. Laws need to be strengthened to make certain that surveillance data are confidential; with rare exceptions, government videos of a street scene, for instance, should be off-limits to the press or ordinary citizens.

Second, we need to put in place clear guidelines about when and how courts, law enforcement, and other government agencies can access the images and video they are collecting. Most of us would probably acknowledge that law enforcement should be able to use surveillance data in cases of terrorism or violent crimes. But how about minor incidents (such as casual drug use) or civil actions (a divorce suit, for instance)? That is where we should draw the line: Those should be off-limits. Off-limits as well should be the use of cameras for trolling — following someone around simply to see what they’re up to.

Cameras are here to stay. On occasion they may prove a boon to public safety. But even when we are in public, we should be able to expect that our private actions will, for the most part, remain private.

© 2013 The New York Times

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